INDIANAPOLIS - To the average fan and the untrained eye, that stock car ramming its way around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is part 3,400-pound Brahman bull, and part scary-fast cheetah. It is an ultra blend of speed and power.
To Ryan Newman, that same car is the precise merger of internal combustion, controlled friction, aerodynamics, downforce, and suspension manipulation. With a degree in vehicle structural engineering from Purdue University hanging on the wall, and more than 200 Nextel Cup races on his resume, Newman knows how these muscular hulks work.
And that depth of understanding, that bank of knowledge about the myriad nuances of the race car, has served him well for most of his career. He will enter Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard with a dozen victories in five full seasons of Cup racing, and more than $33 million in winnings.
He knows the value of a strong education in racing, business, or any other enterprise - not just in grasping the science and physics involved in taking a car from zero to 60 mph in four seconds, and running at speeds of more than 200 mph.
"It helps in anything you do," Newman said about a solid education. "And to have an
engineering degree has helped me to take things to the next level to understand the cars better. But just having that further education to help yourself with the real battles of real life is definitely just as important. And to be well-rounded, as far as having that education and also driving the cars and continuing your experience as a driver is needed for sure."
Newman, who made his stock car racing debut at Michigan International Speedway in an ARCA race in 2000, was the picture of consistency for his first four seasons in the Nextel Cup. He was sixth in the points three times, and seventh the other year.
His most peculiar year was 2003, when Newman led the series with eight wins and 11 poles, but had his championship hopes crippled by the five races he did not finish - all in the first half of the season. Newman ended up sixth in the points race after finishing 38th or worse in six of the first 15 races.
Then last season, Newman dropped off to 18th in the points, missed the Chase for the Nextel Cup, and went winless for the first time since he started racing a full slate of Cup events. His prolific pole performances tailed off too as he took just two poles in 2006 after winning 34 the four previous seasons.
This season got off to a dreadful start when engine problems dropped Newman to 38th at the Daytona 500, but he has steadily climbed back up the points standings and enters the Brickyard - the race widely regarded as the second-most important of the season behind Daytona - in 13th place, just one position out of the field for this year's Chase. Only seven races remain before the elite field for the Chase is set.
"I think we have a really good opportunity to get in the Chase," Newman said recently. . "Last year we were looking at a mathematical chance to make it, but we just didn't have the performances to get us there. Now, I'm looking forward to this stretch of races right before the Chase. I think we've got a good shot at it."
Newman, whose last win came at New Hampshire in 2005, has two second-place finishes in the last seven races. His recent qualifying has been sensational - three poles in the last eight races. For an Indiana native - Newman hails from South Bend - there is hardly anything more important than Sunday's main event, especially considering the points ramifications involved.
"Indianapolis is one of the biggest races of the year for Cup drivers. It ranks right up there with Daytona and Charlotte," Newman said. "Being from Indiana, it would be nice to get a win at the Brickyard. It's also getting down to the wire for the Chase, and this Alltel Dodge team is so close."
Newman, the 2002 Raybestos rookie of the year who set a Cupt rookie record with six poles that season, is confident he can find that magical relationship with the car again.
"We've had some good runs and we've been making up a lot of ground in the last couple of weeks," Newman said. "We just need to put together seven more solid races to make it in this year. I fully believe that this team can do it. We've had some time to relax, and now we're ready to get back to racing."
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